I hit the jackpot for my first assignment as a Westerville Symphony Orchestra volunteer. What better job for an Anglophile librarian than to hand out programs and tear ticket stubs for a rare performance of an epic first symphony written by an Englishman who was inspired by an equally epic collection of poems housed in an amazing 19th-century bookbinding?
I discovered the Englishman, Ralph Vaughan Williams, when I went to Indianapolis to see the Victoria and Albert Museum’s International Arts and Crafts exhibition in 2005. I brought home the companion CD, Beautiful Music Inspired by the Spirit of Arts and Crafts, a collection of works by British composers who were besotted by the traditional rural folk songs of their homeland. Before long, I was hooked on “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” “The House of Life” and “Six Studies in English Folk Song,” all composed by Vaughan Williams. Pronouncing his first name in the old-fashioned English way, so that “Ralph” rhymes with “safe,” the great-great-grandson of the potter Josiah Wedgwood and the great-nephew of Charles Darwin traveled the English countryside transcribing folk songs, then incorporated those melodies into his own music.
Vaughan Williams was also a fan of Leaves of Grass, the collection of poems that Walt Whitman first published in 1855, then revised eight more times through 1892. So, to borrow a line from Whitman, I would like to share “today a rude brief recitative” on the first edition of this work and its memorable binding.
Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for a poet who would write about America, Whitman penned 12 nature-praising poems, then employed a pun when it came time to give the collection a name. “Leaves” was another name for the pages on which his poems were printed; “grass” was a term publishers gave to minor works.
While I’m still not so sure about Whitman’s poetry, I’m a fan of his flair for design. Whitman intended the first edition of Leaves of Grass to be small enough to fit inside a pocket so that it could be read outdoors. Of the 800 copies that were printed, 200 were bound with a distinctively stamped green cloth cover. Vines, tendrils, roots and tufts of grass sprout from the rustic, gold-stamped floriated lettering of the title. It’s a beautiful rare book.
Scholars aren’t sure which version of Leaves of Grass Vaughan Williams might have read, but lines from its poems — “Song of the Exposition”; “Sea Drift”; “On the Beach at Night, Alone”; “After the Sea-Ship” and “A Passage to India” — inspired the four movements of his symphony that he wrote between 1903 and 1909. It was first performed in 1910, on Vaughan Williams’ 38th birthday; he was also the conductor.
Last Saturday evening, Jennifer Hambrick, WOSU Classical 101’s midday announcer, opened the Westerville Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the 70-minute masterwork in conjunction with the Otterbein University Combined Choirs, as well as two soloists: soprano Keyona Willis and baritone Will Mattox. Bursting into song almost immediately, students in the Otterbein Concert Choir, Camerata, Otterbein Singers, Otterbein Women’s Chorale and the Otterbein Vocal Ensemble sang almost continuously throughout the piece, accompanied by the talented instrumentalists in the orchestra. They may have been packed like sardines on the stage, but these 207 musicians produced a sound that was as expansive as the sea.
Between moments of calm, the melody tossed about like the sea so much that I could have reached for the Bonine that knocked me out during most of my last trip to Bermuda. As I followed along with the words to the poems that were provided in the program, I learned that this tale of how the sea binds people together was a metaphor for our voyage through life.
To read more about this memorable composition, see Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony: Formal Structures and Analyses Informed by Poetry, written by choral conductor Dean A. Luethi in 2013 as his dissertation for a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Luethi wrote it to help choral conductors prepare a chorus for performing this work.
Let me give you a program at one of the Westerville Symphony Orchestra’s summer concerts! It will give “Sounds of Freedom,” an outdoor performance of patriotic favorites, on Friday, July 4 at 8:00 pm at the Westerville Sports Complex, followed by the City of Westerville’s fireworks display. On Saturday, July 12 at 5:00 p.m., the symphony will perform for Westerville’s 41st annual Music and Arts Festival at the Everal Barn and Homestead. Its “Sounds of Summer” concert will take place on Sunday, August 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Alum Creek Park Ampitheater.